Thursday, December 26, 2013

The role of theory in experiments

This is really great (and not nearly as long as its breakdown into chapters would suggest!) It (hopefully!) won't contain much new information for economists past the first year or two of grad school, but nonetheless, I thought his explanation of how misinterpretation of p-values is an instance of base-rate neglect was clearer than any other discussion of problematic interpretation of p-values that I've read. I've taught base-rate neglect a few times in behavioral economics classes without realizing the connection.

That then made me realize a more rigorous justification for economic theory, beyond the standard "it forces you to think very carefully and clearly about what your assumptions imply, and helps you discover subtler implications that don't intuitively jump from your assumptions." Economists routinely say things like "Our experiment design should be informed by theory" or "Our analysis should be informed by theory" which is pretty vague and doesn't imply anything deeper than the justification above.

But if you want to understand the chances of your statistically significant result being a false positive, rather than simply the chance that random data could have produced it, you need both a p-value and a prior belief. If an outcome is different between two treatments with p=0.05, but there was only a 1% chance that those treatments actually produce different outcomes on average, there's a pretty small chance that your result in fact isn't a fluke, even though random data would only produce your result 5% of the time. But if you are already sure of the assumptions of a model, and the model predicts a difference, your prior should be much higher than 1%. Any statistically significant results that corroborate the theory are much more informative than they otherwise would be.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Merry Christmas

Things sure have changed since the last time I was at my parent's church, last Christmas eve. Like, what part of Jesus do you suppose is missing from the gluten-free communion wafers?

Matt: The glutes, of course.


Nabokov is my favorite writer, and it turns out he was also a lepidopterist. I can't tell if this is a wonderful essay or it's inevitably wonderful given the topic.

I think Nabokov would be one of my fantasy-dinner-party invitees.

[Perhaps stolen from MR, don't remember...]

Saturday, December 21, 2013

minimum wage versus EITC

This is interesting. (File under "things every citizen should understand about economics" and "things about economics I should've been familiar with already but was not because I'm almost more of a mathematical sociologist than what most people would think of as an economist* and because politics depresses the living hell out of me so I try not to read too much about it**.")

First look at this graph, showing that the diminishing real wages of minimum wage workers often reported has been compensated for by increases in often neglected EITC (see this for more details):

Then go read this short and extremely clear post by Steven Landsberg on why we should be happy that EITC has replaced minimum wage as the social safety net mechanism, which is also stated in the NYTimes article but without much elaboration.

Steven Landsberg is great; you should read him in general. He explains things more clearly than any other blogger I know of. Sometimes a little too virulent for my taste, but hey, considering the target is consistently Paul Krugman, it's only fair... And he makes up for it with fun math puzzles.

*Pssst, don't tell the job market people :)

**See number 3. I highly recommend this list, even though 1, 5, and 10 are still challenging for me. (But on that point, see the coda.)

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

written kitten

Someone please turn this into an emacs plugin!! I want it for writing my next paper.

(Thanks to my friend Yang for mentioning this site :)

Tuesday, December 10, 2013


Amazon is a fierce price competitor. It's awesome. It's a mighty engine of consumer surplus.

So it's a little weird that they keep squeezing resellers. When I first started reselling books on amazon, they took a fixed 15% cut and I made a ton of money, even on books that sold for 1 cent, because the shipping charges were a bit higher than the actual cost. Now amazon takes a much higher, increasing percentage, and also digs into the shipping charges. I haven't posted a book on there in several years because it's never worth the hassle.

So I was surprised to discover recently that still only takes a 15% commission, and has the same shipping charges as amazon. In the last couple months I've already sold a dozen books on there for plenty of cash.

Why is amazon ruthless about cutting its profits in order to gain market share in every other domain except reselling?

Saturday, November 16, 2013

US health outcomes

The whole "US pays more for worse health outcomes" always sounded too bad to be true, and doesn't jibe with all those accounts from Britain and other single-payer systems about having to wait months and months for urgent care. And based on this table from this presentation, which shocked me despite my prior expectation that health care is probably in fact better in the US than other places held up as models by single-payer advocates, it sure looks to me like that rhetoric is greatly exaggerated...

By the way, the most frequent statistics I hear quoted as part of that silly meme are related to life expectancy, and that presentation also shows that when you adjust those figures (as you obviously should) to remove fatal accidents, the US jumps from 19th to 1st in the OECD and Japan falls from 1st to 9th.

None of this, of course, has much to do with cost efficiency, and I'm guessing the US is pretty bad on that front, perhaps largely because it's richer and therefore spends more on healthcare and marginal benefit is decreasing. I'm not going to ignorantly speculate further, but wanted to at least point out I'm not making claims on that dimension.

[stolen from MR]

Friday, November 15, 2013

guaranteed minimum income

Hey, maybe it's more politically feasible than I'd hoped! Switzerland is considering a minimum income program!

The major, supremely disappointing thing about that article is the lack of any mention (in fact, an implication to the contrary) of implicit marginal tax rates. It's not that hard to talk about without economics jargon that it can conscionably be omitted from a new york times article on the topic.

The reason I like the idea of a guaranteed income (for everyone, no matter how rich or poor) as the social safety net is exactly because* it solves the problem of the perverse incentives to not work harder, not maintain financial stable relationships, not take care to only have children you can afford to take care of, etc, introduced by the patchwork of welfare programs that currently exist. Poor Americans have less incentive to work harder than anyone else, because the more money they make the fewer benefits they get from the government. Talk about a backasswards approach to the social safety net. A guaranteed income for everyone doesn't introduce the same perverse incentives.

(Unfortunately it seems like the Alberta experiment was still based on income, so it's not actually a guaranteed income policy at all. I hope to god that Switzerland tries it out and does it right.)

*at least, economically speaking. Morally speaking I also strongly prefer welfare policies that don't inadvertently punish responsibility... and of course, those two reasons are intimately related.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

forms and more forms

This is probably the funniest thing I'll encounter in this process of filling out 250 web applications for jobs:

"Email address (If you do not have an email address, please go to hotmail or yahoo to sign up for an internet email account):"


I know I shouldn't complain, because the economics job market is so fantastically organized compared to every other field. But why do 90% of schools insist on having their own application websites, 98% of which are built with exactly the same software, instead of just using I now have my four references' phone numbers memorized...

Someone please hire me so I can stop this nonsense.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

sexist pronouns

One nice thing about being female is that I can use "he" as the default singular pronoun to my heart's content without being accused of sexism :)

In lots of game theory models there are two players, which is perfect because one can be "he" and the other "she". But my job market paper models a single individual's choices in a game with an amorphous crowd of observers. So he's just a he. Gender balance be damned.

I respect my readers enough to trust that they will not read anything more into my pronoun use than convenience of language (which exists naturally in so many other gendered languages, just not English...)

Monday, October 28, 2013


I'm giving a seminar tomorrow, so of course rather than practicing it again, I think about these other things...

Why do I/we go to seminars? It's an immensely inefficient way to obtain information. Half an hour with the paper is most definitely better than an hour and a half listening to someone talk about it, and that's if I manage to pay attention the whole time (ha!*)

So why do I still go? (...when I do?)

  1. Social image. If I never show up, what will people think of me? 
  2. Learning what kinds of questions people have, and therefore how to anticipate questions to my own work.
  3. Learning how to present, by watching others present. 
  4. A commitment device, to force myself to spend some time thinking about an interesting paper that isn't directly enough related to my research that I'd read the paper before letting it stagnate in my Mendeley "to read" folder for six months, or a year, or indefinitely... 
  5. To be able to keep up with talk around the water cooler. There may be more interesting papers to read than whichever random one is being presented, but if everyone in the office just saw the same presentation, we can have an interesting discussion about it.

What else? Is it just me?

Relatedly: I hear Jeff Bezos, in place of traditional meetings, requires people to write up reports, which everyone in the meeting reads silently and simultaneously before discussing it. He says it's impossible to write a report without thinking clearly about what you're saying, and reading is more efficient than listening. For this among other reasons, I rather idolize him...

*To be fair, the reason it's hard to pay attention the whole time is partly because it's an inefficient way to obtain information, so that's a little bit circular.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Economics is most definitely a science

I'm not even sure where the ridiculous notion that it's not got any footing.

Perfect on the topic.

(Until I have a job, hopefully less than six months from now, this blog probably won't contain much more than an occasional link :)

Monday, October 7, 2013


People always mention students' excitement/moments of clarity as the most gratifying parts of teaching, but I have to say, another big one (though perhaps only the first or second time you teach a class) is realizing you know a subject so well you barely have to prepare.

I guess I learned something in grad school!

Monday, September 30, 2013

empirical economics

Two studies one of my empirical economist friends should do:

1) Identify the selection bias in motorcycle fatality/crash statistics by comparing to scooters, which are objectively just as dangerous but attract a very different kind of rider. (All kinds of supplemental sources of identification and controls might also be useful here - state-by-state laws on what kinds of bikes and scooters are highway legal, state-by-state laws on related things such as helmets or lane-splitting, changes in the above kinds of laws, comparing specific types of crashes, such as taking turns too fast or being hit by other cars, which are unlikely to have anything to do with whatever added difficulty there is from having to shift manually or having a higher center of gravity, specific sizes / styles of bikes / scooters, introduction of new types of scooters into the market, comparing specific types of usage such as urban commuting vs. recreational, age and experience of riders, etc. An actual empiricist would probably come up with cleaner ideas.)

2) Identify the impact on job market outcomes from jet lag by using the random location of the AEA conference each year. Number of follow-up interviews, ultimate placement, etc.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013


Freedom, Jonathan Franzen - Couldn't put it down. This guy wrote at least a dozen complex well-developed characters, any of whom would've been the best written character in most novels. It's 570 pages but not nearly long enough.

Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time, by Dana Sobel - After visiting the Greenwich Observatory, which is essentially a museum of longitude, my friend Henry told me about this book which goes into more detail. Pretty fascinating. Amazing how many thousands of people used to die (ship wrecks, getting lost at sea, etc), not even that long ago, due to such a simple thing that we take completely for granted now.

Introvert Power: Why Your Inner Life Is Your Hidden Strength by Laurie Helgoe - Painfully naval-gazey, written entirely in therapist-speak. I'm just about as introverted as you can get (not antisocial but 100% introverted according to every Myers-Briggs test I've ever taken) so I can empathize with every single sentence, but that also means there wasn't a single new sentence. And I'm long past the angsty teen self-exploration phase of my life where it would've been entertaining as part of a self-definition clarification thing.

Friday, September 20, 2013

sociology-economics phrasebook

This is perhaps the best thing I've ever seen. [HT MR]


need                                                 want
is correlated with                            is correlated with
determines                                       is correlated with
causes                                             is correlated with
crosstabs                                         non-parametric regression
empirical work                                crosstabs
structural analysis                            OLS regression
sophisticated structural analysis      logit model
endogenous                                     endogenous
exogenous                                        endogenous
model (I)                                           explanation
model (II)                                         diagram involving circles and arrows
exploitation                                      contract
discrimination                                  wage differential

Ok ok I'll stop before I quote the whole thing. TOO good. (And entirely true! I kept reading sociology papers with "model" in the title/abstract hoping they would have something useful to say about my models, since, you know, it seemed like a good idea not to be completely out of the loop on what sociology says about my very sociological economics dissertation, but the best I ever found was the diagram with circles and arrows...)

Thursday, September 19, 2013

re-SMBC, part 4

Well this one was easy.


(Although, if I were to get pedantic, I'd say the assumptions of microeconomics are rarely exactly true but operate as analogies of very common real-world situations, and the resulting models do really well at explaining those situations. Macro is the same way but the resulting models don't do so well. Perhaps because the assumptions are way too far from the truth, I dunno. I'm not gonna pretend to be a macroeconomist. I barely remember what IS-LM stands for...)

Another note: behavioral economics does better at explaining things partly because it's kind of an increase in the degrees of freedom, but I very much like Matthew Rabin's point on this matter: lambda=0 is the implicit assumption of classical economics, but lambda=2 is a much better assumption and doesn't increase the degrees of freedom at all.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

the ppt panic

I confess... Anytime powerpoint crashes or fails to load a plugin or can't find an attached file during a presentation, I experience uncontrollable schadenfreude. Especially when the speaker is openly disdainful or skeptical of TeX. (Which in economics is basically an if and only if condition for using powerpoint in the first place.)

This has happened at least three times in the last month :)

(Hey, at least my tech snobbery hasn't gotten to the point where I begrudge others' use of things like non-linux or non-emacs or their fear of non-Matlab... I just feel bad that they're stuck torturing themselves. The TeX thing is more irritating because they're likely to try to inflict their .doc's on me :)

Wednesday, September 11, 2013


This is what I did while clicking refresh on the AEA registration website for an hour this morning. Re-SMBC part 3:


(Context and more good jokes.)

Saturday, August 31, 2013

more limericks

To contribute to some poetry reading with friends last night, I wrote another (extremely dumb, but hey, I was vacuuming) limerick:

An insecure cephalopod
felt his limbs were unfortunately flawed.
Their number was nine,
which would've been fine,
but they stood out for being so odd.

And here's Matt's from a long time ago actually. Controls theory background required...

When designing adaptive control
And desiring a proof of your goal
Use Lyapunov, not Routh
Or, with sine waves at "out"
You'll end up with an infinite pole.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

signaling is powerful

Person2: He is giving a talk on behavioral economics here in a month.
Me: Oh cool. It's hard to tell what he works on judging by google results, but I'd bet he doesn't stay in academia, in case you're interested in hiring him.
Person2: He's starting part time in a week :)

These kinds of inferences aren't unjustified prejudice because people signal intentionally. When an academic has a lot of google hits from public talks they've given on general interest topics, doesn't have a professional website but does have a linked-in page, and has few publications/working papers despite being out of grad school for at least a year or two, it's pretty clear they don't want to stay in academia. It's so clear because it's a signal that's been carefully crafted to send that message.

(And in case it's not clear from my google results, maybe because I have this silly unbreakable blogging habit, I am almost exclusively interested in staying in academia. Please hire me :)

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

the tragedy of ignoring marginal incentives

A heartbreaking example of the perils of ignoring marginal benefit analysis, the unintended consequences of perverse incentives, and the danger of letting good intentions overrule good economic sense. All such programs need to be vetted/sanity-checked by economists to avoid these kinds of outcomes.

This well-illustrates a common problem with aid programs more generally speaking, that occurs when benefits are contingent on some threshold level of poverty. Implicit marginal tax rates (that is, tax rates including both taxes and benefits) can be substantially higher than 100%.

(Any economists reading can skip the next two paragraphs. But I'm including it because you'd be amazed how many people, even very smart and well-educated people, don't realize how marginal tax rates work. The misconception is even published as a "tip" in places like USA Today. This is a serious failure of the public educational system. It's insane that you're required to read Romeo and Juliet to graduate from high school, but you can get by without having any clue how interest rates or tax rates or tax-deferred retirement funds or social security or credit reports work. And that list doesn't even include anything about more complicated investment vehicles, like stocks and bonds and CDs and mutual funds and index funds and all that fun stuff that middle-or-higher-class Americans lose millions on due to lack of information, just the stuff anyone needs to know about...)

In terms of income tax rates alone, the system is designed so that your marginal tax rate is never above 100%. That is, when you make one more dollar, you can never lose more than that due to paying higher taxes. Getting bumped up to a higher tax bracket can never hurt you.

Say there are two tax brackets. People who make at most $20,000 have a marginal tax rate of 10%, and everyone else has a marginal tax rate of 20%. That means that even rich people pay only 10% of the first $20,000 they make. Then they pay 20% of any additional income they make beyond that. Going from making $20,000 to $20,001 in income raises your taxes from $2,000 to $2,000.20. Income taxes diminish the incentive to make more money, but never reverse it.

Unfortunately, this breaks down when you include benefits. If you're so poor that you're hardly paying any taxes to start with, and you're receiving benefits that only kick in if you stay poor, the implicit marginal tax rate can be much higher than 100%. That means that earning more money can make you poorer, once you subtract the value of the child credits and subsidized health care and other benefits that you'll lose. These two charts shows strikingly how little incentive there is for a very poor family to earn more money, unless they can earn much more money, over $40,000, well above the poverty line. The first chart shows the family's real income (net of taxes and benefits). See how it drops down in several places? That means that making more money hurt the hypothetical family. The second chart shows the implicit marginal tax rate, which shows why this happens. It's well over 100% for a significant range of income.

This isn't an abstract problem. There is ample evidence, in the context of countless specific programs, that people respond to these perverse incentives by trying not to lose their benefits by doing a bit better on their own and failing to qualify for them. We need to be more careful about designing these aid programs. People need help, but first and foremost they should be able to help themselves without that effort turning out to be counterproductive.

The AIDS-contingent benefits are just a particularly heartbreaking example of this wider problem.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

more SMBC disrespect

Ok the re-do doesn't really portray economists in a nice light either but at least I got to express my frustration at the "economics isn't a science" club :)

re-SMBC part 2, 3037:

Edit: to clarify, since I have zero artistic skills, that's supposed to be the economics-as-science skeptic being cooked at the end...

Tuesday, August 6, 2013


I am anal enough about digital organization not to do this myself, but when collaborating it's inevitable. After the last 16 hours of emailing who-knows-how-many versions of this paper draft between three coauthors, merging in all our edits, making more edits, and ending up with filenames as ridiculous as the title of this post (because it makes me sad to have to start adding hours and minutes to the datestamp), this comic feels very relevant. And I'm starting to listen to Matt about the virtues of git*...

*To clarify, I have nothing against git, I'm sure it's wonderful, it's just that I mostly work by myself, so what's the point. And for it to be useful with collaborators you have to work with people who use it, which seems unlikely given that in my field it's hard enough to get people to use miraculous timesaving things like LaTeX, let alone programming languages more real than Stata or Matlab, let alone miraculous timesaving things like Linux, let alone git, so what's the point in starting. Although I could at least force my future RAs to use it with me... and hopefully start a trend...

Wednesday, July 31, 2013


Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void, by Mary Roach: So good! Hilarious and fascinating the whole way through. It's about all the aspects of space travel you don't normally think about in detail: nausea, psychology, disorientation, hygiene, food, toilets, showering, sleeping, digesting, relationships, claustrophobia, chimpanzee behaviors, and so on and so forth. I'm always a little skeptical of popular science books written by non-scientists but in this case it's a benefit: she's a great writer and describes things from the perspective of an incredulous, amazed outsider, which is of course how readers see it too.

Tenth of December: Stories, by George Saunders: Obviously he's a great writer, but not my cup of tea. Mostly, he's really a downer.

By the River Piedra I Lay Down and Wept, by Paulo Coelho: This book is as awfully melodramatic as the title. It seriously didn't have a single redeeming quality. I want those three hours of my life back. I only kept reading because it's really short and the ending was alluded to from the start and I wanted to see how they got there. It was meaninglessly anticlimactic.

In particular: When a girl who consciously abandoned religion as a child and consciously takes a cautious approach towards relationships then meets her childhood friend and fall in love overnight and refinds her faith in the next 48 hours after that so she can join this man she effectively just met in his religious path for the rest of their lives, who on earth could take that seriously? It sounds like a story by an 11 year old girl who has just enough sense to at least pay fleeting lipservice to the idea that maybe you shouldn't redefine your whole self in an hour for a boy you've just met.... but not enough sense to realize that anyone who does so is transparently not to be taken seriously when they claim they honestly had a revelation about their life philosophy.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

reference dependent life satisfaction

When I was a kid, I heard people say that college was the best time of their lives and I should look forward to it. I always thought that was a little sad. Seems like an early time to peak.

But now that I can look back on childhood, high school, college, the real world, and grad school, comparing the happiness of my memories of those phases indicates to me that I was misinterpreting what all those people meant by happiness.

I'm about to go to my 10 year high school reunion, so the tiny, very special math and science public boarding school I went to has been on my mind a lot, and I have such great memories of it. I remember being almost ecstatically happy for two whole years there, despite being catastrophically sleep deprived and working very hard, all the time, and having every minute of my day dictated by a draconian staff (seriously, no other school I've ever talked to anyone about, anywhere in the world, had as many crazy and strict rules as this place) that also made several infuriatingly awful decisions that luckily didn't impact me directly. Objectively speaking, I've had a much better quality of life at almost any point since then. So why do I remember it as the happiest time of my life?

Reference dependence. I left home and left my purely-average school system to go live with a bunch of nerds and take tons of really interesting and challenging science and math classes. I got to take three physics classes simultaneously! I had friends I could really relate to for the first time, and lived with my best friend in the world, who I was constantly involved in miscellaneous antics with. The adults around me understood what I wanted from life and how I was getting there and how to help. After six weeks or so, I had a sudden epiphany about what seemed so weird about my new life: no one ever screamed at each other. I got to skip half of those awful teenage years when my parents would have been trying to stop me from having any control over my life. It was amazing.

College was maybe objectively better, and grad school objectively better still, but neither was such an unexpected and huge increase in quality of life as OSSM was. Most people have this experience when they go to college, and they remember it as the best time of their life. I got that a couple years early, so I remember OSSM in that light.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

draft revisions

Does this pattern of optimism about one's academic writing sound familiar to anyone else?

Almost invariably, when I finish a draft or a draft revision of a paper, I think, well that's certainly not perfect, but it'll do for now. Then over time, the longer I let it sit, the more awful I think it is. I can't even believe I could have written certain things in certain ways or left things in that form without being so embarrassed by the awfulness that I wouldn't allow anyone else to look at it.

Then at some point, I go back to do another revision, read through it, and think, huh, that's not actually so bad. Not perfect, things missing, but it at least reads like an intelligent person wrote it.

And the cycle repeats.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

unincentivized surveys

This was obviously written by an economist :) I would have emphasized the final paragraph rather than the first one. Psychologists definitely rely on unincentivized surveys too much, but economists are too distrustful of unincentivized questions, because they don't distinguish between situations in which biased answers are likely from those in which they aren't. It's not always possible or practical to incentivize survey questions, and if you don't have a reason to doubt people's responses, why not accept them at face value for the time being?

Experimental economics started off focusing only on the domains in which incentivization definitely matters, such as market activities. But now behavioral economics is invading psychology, and it's not always so important to incentivize correctness when you're just trying to directly measure thought processes. That is, if you ask someone what they think about an economic activity, they might tell you something that bears little resemblance to their actions when participating in that activity. But you're quite likely to hear something that resembles what they actually think about the activity...

Sunday, July 14, 2013


Nothing makes me so mad as abusive power-tripping law enforcement. (That sentence is redundant, come to think of it...) I can't even get through most news articles about it, because I'm so quickly so angry I can't even react to it, and have to look at some lolcats to prevent the next hour from being destroyed by debilitating fury.

So imagine my surprise when, amidst stories about the NYPD planting evidence and SWAT teams entering the wrong houses without announcing themselves as required and shooting innocent people and pets just for being there and the constant slew of unnecessary force incidents and arrests of people for recording abusive law enforcement incidents (and just the fact that almost every mundane interaction with cops is exploited as an opportunity to play thug!), I read this story that actually makes me optimistic about the situation.

TL;DR: Half of the officers in a police department started wearing tiny cameras that record every interaction with citizens. The total number of complaints against the department dropped by 88% and use of force dropped by 60%.

How soon can this be ubiquitously deployed?

[Stolen from MR.]

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

pareto efficiency

I haven't been reading SMBC for too long, but long enough to be more and more irritated by his intentional spreading of misinformation about economics (I say intentional because he's obviously smart enough to know better; most of his comics are extremely clever and hilarious.)

So rather than taking Matt's suggestion and sending him an email, which he would probably turn into yet another comic making fun of economists for being pedantic and inhuman, I'm just gonna redo the comics...

re-SMBC part 1, 3045:

Wednesday, June 26, 2013


I'm sure I don't have any unique commentary on DOMA, so let me just say I'm looking forward to being maid of honor at my best friend's wedding in a few months, now to include all the typical legal hassles and higher taxes that straight couples have always dealt with. Congratulations Jo and Laura :)

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

motivated reasoning

Akerlof really has a knack for describing things in a way that makes it impossible to disagree, to the point where you think the point was almost too obvious to make:
Unlike a camera film or a filing cabinet, the human mind must “choose” which stimuli to process and store and which stimuli to ignore or to repress. It is all but inevitable that this choice process involves the aims of the organism, so that its view of the world is all but inevitably biased by its aims.
From "The Economics of Illusion", Akerlof 1989. 

Friday, June 14, 2013

in praise of craigslist and nice people

What website is there that has produced so much consumer surplus as craigslist? (Except amazon maybe.)

I've found four apartments on craigslist, bought three motorcycles, and sold two motorcycles on craigslist. I've bought and sold more concert, festival, and burning man tickets on craigslist than I can possibly count. I furnished three apartments entirely from free or almost-free furniture on craigslist, and then got rid of all that furniture on craigslist again when moving across the country twice. I've bought 13 bicycles and sold 13 bicycles on craigslist, and countless miscellaneous items.

I met one of my best friends via craigslist, and dated people I met on craigslist. I've found three roommates through craigslist. I set up two of my friends with people I found on craigslist (and they're both now engaged or married to that person, so don't let anyone tell you craigslist is only full of creeps :)

But until two days ago, I'd never realized how fantastic it is as a general-purpose focal point for all community-bulletin-board-type material, beyond facilitating trade. I was motorcycling around north Berkeley, and since it was hot out and I wasn't going on the highway, I stuffed my nice motorcycle jacket* in the saddlebag. But one buckle is broken, and it slipped out from under the other one. As soon as I got back to school I noticed and retraced my steps, but it was already gone.

I immediately went to craigslist to post an ad in the lost and found section, thinking, what the heck, there's no way this'll work but it's worth a shot. I then printed out 50 lost-reward flyers to put up along the route, and went to the gym to meet my friend and borrow her rollerblades so I could put them up in a reasonable amount of time. As I was leaving the gym about 90 minutes later, dreading having to go back and put them all up, I noticed a voicemail. Someone had called to tell me that she randomly saw my "lost" ad right next to someone's "found" ad with the same description, and she called just to let me know. Can you believe how nice some people are!?

I then went back to craigslist and saw that I had posted my ad within two minutes of the other ad, about 20 minutes after I lost it in the first place. I emailed the poster, retrieved my jacket, and he adamantly refused to let me pay him the $50 reward. These people give me faith in humanity. Within an hour of losing something quite valuable, a stranger had attempted to return it to me and another stranger had tried to facilitate.

I love craigslist. And nice people.

(And now I will of course use this incident to point out how well public services can be provided by private entities. Can you imagine what a horror show a government-run craigslist would be?)

*By the way, at least for smallish women, these are one of those rare things that are totally worth paying the exorbitant full price for. Over 8 years it's been worth its $280 price several times over...

Sunday, June 9, 2013

free markets prevent government abuse

This post is so exactly what I think, on such a fundamental level, that it wouldn't even occur to me to make the point explicitly. But I'm sure glad David Henderson did, and therefore you all should go read it.

(To summarize, free markets are decentralized and tend to provide what people want, so when the government starts abusing its power, the market provides ways to push back against that. Free markets therefore make me relatively optimistic about the world. In the case of privacy, there are already plenty of utilities you can use to make it harder for the government to spy on you.)

Saturday, June 8, 2013


With privacy issues in the news, there's been some interesting discussion:

MR on creative ambiguity
- Matt Yglesias (who I like more and more since he's moved to Slate) on tech companies and tech exports, and with a relevant movie recommendation which I heartily second, The Lives of Others.

It seems like social norms about privacy change much faster than laws about privacy (see how people have quickly adapted to privacy-compromising technology, and how short-lived were the objections to each new facebook rollout...). This is even more true for privacy law than other kinds of law because lawmakers have incentives that conflict with privacy protection. I also believe privacy is an extremely valuable legal principle, both simply as fundamental human right that should be enshrined as clearly as the freedom of expression, and because no government in history can hold so much power over personal information without abusing it. Therefore, I'm afraid that people will get used to a lack of privacy and stop pushing back through legal channels before the law can adapt to protect our privacy in the digital age. Maybe the negative consequences to this lack of privacy will initially be rare enough to be justified as acceptable collateral damage in the war against terror, but in the long run, you know, "first they came for the Xs and I did not speak out because I was not an X" and so on...

Thursday, May 30, 2013

cultivating tastes

I highlighted one quote from David Foster Wallace's "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again" essay collection, from the (highly recommended) essay "E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction":
"Television is the way it is simply because people tend to be extremely similar in their vulgar and prurient and dumb interests and wildly different in their refined and aesthetic and noble interests."
Isn't that great? It's obviously true, but how does such an equilibrium arise? I can imagine a model in which cultivating a favorable identity drives people to cultivate interests that serve their preferred identity. Any niche, plausibly highbrow interest will do. Only someone who is truly devoted to a difficult, niche interest would bother cultivating it, so fellow connoisseurs know they are sharing honest enthusiasm and onlookers know they are observing true integrity of identity.

The same isn't true for vulgar interests. No one wants to show them off or admit to themselves that their identity encompasses prurient interests. So our guilty pleasures don't get explored and diversified and refined like our noble tastes do.

And the funny thing is, the very fact that refined interests are so diversified proves that in some sense they aren't so honest as they are chosen and artificially cultivated for show (to oneself and to others). You see why I like this interpretation: it let's me rag on foodies some more :) (Yes, despite the fact I have my own cultivated interests...)

(This should perhaps be a Bénabou and Tirole model?)

Tuesday, May 28, 2013


I read a bunch of stuff while camping over spring break (and audiobooks on BART, as usual) and forgot to write them down until now.

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert Heinlein - Matt is always telling me about sci-fi books I "have" to read, and I got him to narrow it down to this one as number one on the list, since I can rarely stand sci-fi and am not about to go through the full set :)

I'm still not sure what I think of this book overall. The first quarter or third was standard sci-fi - too much effort spent in building an alternative universe and expounding on details that don't add to the story, along with many stilted conversations with strange characters I can't relate to and don't get invested in. Along the same lines, the artificial English/Russian dialect that the book is written in is an aggravating touch that makes it less enjoyable to read and adds nothing that a few isolated Russian terms wouldn't have accomplished on their own. The same applies to the weird social constructs such as centuries-old line marriages and professional surrogate mothers - it isn't convincing and only makes you less sympathetic to the heroes of the story. (But, I would like to read a story exploring these ideas if they were more convincingly done, but Heinlein's treatment just really didn't do it for me.)

The middle 40% or so I definitely did get into, though. The story about the buildup to the revolution was thoroughly engrossing, and Mike the computer was a really funny character. (Stilted sci-fi characters work better as computers, turns out.) My only nitpick is a trivial pet peeve: throughout the build-up towards the revolution, Mike periodically announced odds of winning, and a few times they said effectively "they're worse now, but that's ok, we knew that was going to happen." You can't anticipate that odds are going to change! If you anticipate it, they've already changed.

And then the last third was pretty mind-numbing. Waaaay too much boring detail about a revolution that was utterly anti-climactic.

Overall, as a political statement, it fell flat, despite the fact I'm about as sympathetic an audience as Heinlein is going to find for his message. Even people who are extremely skeptical of government and the monopoly on force that it has and are very optimistic about the power of social norms to maintain order absent centralized authority are not going to be convinced of the feasibility of anarchy by stories of vigilante artificial selection and voluntarily hired private judges. I would have preferred 1% as much "then we bombed X, then we bombed Y, then they attacked Z" and have the spare 200 pages devoted to the settling down of the new society on the lunar colony post-independence. I admit I'm a harsh judge of political statements presented through fiction, but at least there are some examples I thought were very well done and enjoyable to read (Atlas Shrugged, 1984, etc.) and this wasn't one of them. I think part of the reason it's unconvincing is that the political system and the social constructs are presented as simply and obviously effective, with no psychological difficulty or complex emotional conflict. Maybe those systems would be feasible but love and governance are never so peaceful, especially when so violent and complicated. But this is a common problem with utopian stories - if you believe in one thing, it's easy to convincingly describe the downfall of the original system, but hard to honestly present the difficulties that might arise in the utopian alternative and how they might be resolved.

The Brooklyn Follies, by Paul Auster - I love Paul Auster. This one was better than Book of Illusions but not as good as The New York Trilogy, but the story was the best. I read it in one sitting, literally.

The New York Trilogy, by Paul Auster - This is actually a collection of three novellas that were originally published separately, but they explicitly go together (the last refers back to the first, and the stories are parallel in theme.) This was definitely my favorite Paul Auster so far. So engrossing, and psychologically complex, and confusing, and one of those books that you keep thinking about for awhile afterwards (although perhaps that's partly because I'm so bad at reading fiction, it takes me awhile to figure out what happened and what the point was :)

Why is Sex Fun by Jared Diamond - Short popular science book on evolutionary biology. A lot was redundant after seeing about a dozen David Attenborough series, but some was new too, and fascinating. Planning to read a more scientific version, though.

Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach - I don't remember who/what told me this was worth reading, but it ended up on my list. It was boring.

A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again by David Foster Wallace - DFW is one of the best wordsmiths I've ever encountered (after Nabokov, but not sure who else.) This is a collection of essays, a few of which were amazing and worth reading the rest of them, which were on topics I don't know anything about and don't care about and were thus difficult or impossible to slog through. (He's similar to Proust in that way, stunningly fantastic when writing about something of interest and impossible to read otherwise.) Everything else by DFW is higher up on my to-read list now.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

sex/race-blind evaluation

I enthusiastically favor sex and race-blind evaluations (for admissions/jobs/etc) especially in the early stages where you're only going off of a resumé or something and stereotypes might subconsciously influence interpretation moreso than when you actually interact with them and see how they work.

Of course, that almost never actually happens, but I was amused to realize today that I succeeded in doing so purely by accident. The responses I got when soliciting for an undergraduate RA all had foreign names I can't begin to correlate with gender or pronunciation, and only roughly with nationality or race.

Berkeley is an interesting place :)

Friday, May 24, 2013

experimental results are artifacts of experiments...

A lot of economists hate dictator games. There are two main classes of reasons for this: first, people allegedly behave differently in the dictator game than they do in the real world. Second, (the more academic critique), it's not useful scientifically because too many factors go into the dictator game decision so it's not clear what the game measures.

The second critique can be rephrased positively: the dictator game is incredibly useful for measuring a wide array of effects, by comparing the results between two closely related variants of the game. It's wonderfully simple and flexible.

The same response also addresses the first complaint. Of course dictator games aren't straightforward to compare to the real world. Many factors go into the decision, and changing the setting to something like this changes a large number of them. The two settings are so different it's not even interesting to compare them anymore.

So yes, all dictator game results are artifacts of the game setting. ALL experimental results are "artifacts" of the experimental setting. That doesn't mean it isn't useful as a measurement device (which I give the author of the link above a lot of credit for bringing up), nor does it mean it isn't useful for understanding the real world, you just have to be more nuanced about your analogizing.

(In particular, in this case, expectations about behavior, framing of the question, and differing claims to the property, I suspect are the main things that differ between a standard laboratory dictator game and giving someone some casino chips and suggesting he might like to share with another guy. The defining attribute of a dictator game is not just that the money in question didn't come from the dictator's previously earned income. In the lab, both people show up expecting to earn some money, so if you find yourself in the position of allocating that money, of course you'll think it's fair to share, and of course you'll think that your partner will expect you to share and to resent you for making his trouble of showing up not worthwhile if you don't, and of course you think the experimenter is watching you, and of course you interpret the situation as a sharing game rather than a lucky random windfall that only affects you. Does anyone really think we needed an experiment to verify that people don't share randomly acquired money like they share money that they're instructed to allocate with another person who has come looking for it?? These results are not surprising nor newsworthy nor do they prove anything about the uselessness of laboratory dictator games...)

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

London, part 2

1. You get what you pay for; therefore, a default expectation of free things is potentially damaging. I'd much rather pay 50p for a public restroom that is open and operational, and in fact not horrifically disgusting, than wander miles to sneak into coffee shops in San Francisco because all the public restrooms are shut down and terrifying.

2. The mathematics exhibit at the Science museum is AMAZING! I always expected math museums would be trivial and dull, but noooooo. If the new national museum of math in NYC is anything like this, I am much more excited to go see it now (and very bummed out I'm not going to make it in May after all...)

3. Specifically, the crazy mechanical contraptions people came up with to draw various types of curves, copy and scale images, integrate arbitrary surface areas, and even compute fourier transforms, before computers existed, are freaking mind-blowingly awesome. Does anyone know of a good book about these kinds of things that explain in detail how they work? I was baffled by most of them. And extremely thrilled at the ingenious simplicity when I did understand them.

4. I also unexpectedly got to see the Phillips machine! I've been wanting to ever since I heard of it. (Is there a version somewhere you can play with? Or a simulation?)

5. Dear London: there does not exist a beer that improves with temperature, above a little over freezing. Sincerely, the rest of the world.

6. Who knew I knew so many people in London? Great time with Iva and Pavel, Henry, Matt[3], James and Susanna, Simon, Ed, and Alyssa and Dan. And of course all the other people I met from LBS and TADC.

7. The upside to perpetual cold dreary drizzle and 90% humidity is that Oxford (presumably non-Urban Britain in general but that was as far as I went) is beautifully lusciously green and blooming.

8. Matt and I spent literally half an hour doing nothing but giggling at place names on the tube map (actually a lot more cumulatively...)

9. The GPS prime meridian is a couple hundred feet off from the actual prime meridian, as settled by international agreement to coincide with the meridian of William Hershel's telescope at the Royal observatory at Greenwich, which itself is a dozen yards from various other meridians used by former astronomers with different telescopes. For some reason I was amused by this pragmatism. Almost every other standard is fundamentally tied to some astronomical phenomenon, but longitude is so arbitrary each astronomer just picked their own.

10. It's also amazing to think that only a century or so ago, people were dying by the thousands due to our inability to measure universal time or longitude accurately.

11. Jetlag this direction is awesome. Never have I gotten so much done before 6:30am. (I anticipate a change of heart around 8pm.)

12. Oh right, the real reason I went to Britain... The doctoral conference was pretty fantastic actually. Nice not to be at the bottom of the totem pole and to talk to lots of very smart new people.

13. Ok, no more having fun until I get a job. (Although it's surprising how much work you can get done en route and while waiting and when your boyfriend is asleep, etc, when you bring your laptop with you everywhere you go and are in a constant motivational panic about how much you need to be doing...)

Sunday, May 5, 2013

London, so far

1. Urban youth acting like punks with British accents are hilarious.

2. London is amazingly global. A tiny fraction of the people/languages/accents I've encountered have been British. Slight selection bias admitted.

3. Nonetheless, some foreign students I was talking to last night confirm my suspicion that foreigners in London feel more permanently like foreigners than in, say, New York. The American identity is based on diversity and everyone being an immigrant. Anyone can be American, but not anyone can be British.

4. If I pay 10 pounds per night to stay in a dormitory hostel room, do you really think I'm going to pay a pound per hour to connect to wifi? Price discrimination fail. (Phone tethering setup complete.)

5. Upon visiting Westerminster Abbey, I'm reminded (since living in Germany in middle school) how strangely integrated religion is in official business in Europe. Then I realize that by global standards, I'm actually the weird one for taking separation of church and state for granted. Then I experience a wave of patriotism.

6. We say that celebrities are American royalty. That's not true. Royalty exist on a higher plane who are supposed to deserve their status due to some endowed intrinsic quality, perhaps literally by God, whereas we fundamentally realize that celebrities are normal people who earned or stumbled into their position. We ultimately recognize the perverse fetishism that perpetuates celebrity, but no such undercurrent applies to royalty.

7. Again, it's strange to think that I'm globally the weird one for so thoroughly internalizing the mantra that all men are created equal.

8. Norms and expectations matter far more than legality. (Well ok, duh, but all the subtle differences remind me, and it's a point worth remaking indefinitely.) How on earth else could this modern, peaceful, inclusive society have evolved from such a weird mix of government, the royal family, and state religion? While meanwhile elsewhere, all the proper legalese and institutional setup in the world can't end long-brewing religious wars?

9. The best and worst thing about being a social scientist is that it's so hard to focus on the experience rather than the meta-experience.

10. The best thing about going to church (I went to Westminster Abbey's Evensong, for the sake of the nice choir music, despite feeling approximately like how I imagine a sheltered religious boy must feel in the Castro for the first time: very out of place and a little dirty, and afraid to attract attention) is the funny outdated words. "Holpen" = "helped". "Abode" is in fact the past tense of "abide". "Endue" is another form of "endow". If I'd had a smartphone to look this stuff up on on the fly as a kid I probably would've been much more interested in the Bible.

11. The Indian food here really does taste different. I don't know whether I like it better or worse; it was excellent, but distinctly different. (Further experimentation necessary :)

12. The world is small. Had dinner with a friend who randomly saw my facebook post about going to London, where she lives. Turns out she goes to the school that is hosting my conference. Went to a party with a bunch of people who will be there next week.

13. Why haven't döner kebabs caught on in the U.S.?

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

sinking in

Grad students are supposed to talk to lots of professors to get constructive feedback on their work. On the surface, this is useful because you get ideas and suggestions from people who are much more experienced in the field, and the more people you talk to, the more variety in suggestions you get from different angles.

True, but also, if you're as dense and stubborn as I am, it's helpful because you hear the same things from many people. And eventually the message hits a weak point in your skull and you actually hear it.

Funny how information aggregates. A dozen similar conversations with no noticeable Eureka moment, but after it's all said and done I'm not where I started anymore.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

efficiency versus innovation

Matt Yglesias has an interesting post on San Francisco, which despite obvious terrible public policies resulting in awful inefficiencies, is a hotbed for innovation.

I take his point that economists focus too much on promoting efficiency and not enough on promoting innovation. We definitely understand how to do the former much better.

But, they aren't alternatives. And if we don't know very well how to recreate the magic formula that led to the startup culture in San Francisco, we might as well fight to rectify the inefficiencies. The examples of urban density and building regulations he cites in particular, if fixed, would make room for more participants in that innovation culture. If you don't know how to create innovation, might as well expand it by improving efficiency.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

this is not welfare increasing

You know what's ludicrous? I've had to go through over 3 months of back and forth with the human subjects committee because I want to pay people on MTurk a few cents for accurate answers on a 5 minute survey. (If it was a simple unincentivized survey, it would be exempt from needing human subjects approval. Although I would still have to go back and forth with CPHS to prove it was exempt...)

I don't know how these people live with themselves. Bureaucracy, especially at a giant public university, is always cumbersome, but this is taking it to a new level.

Friday, March 1, 2013

race and the welfare state

I mentioned previously that Alesina and Glaeser's book had a convincing argument that race plays an important role in the difference between attitudes towards redistribution in the U.S. and Europe. In particular, the racial diversity in the U.S., and strong correlation between poverty and race, causes the median American to be less in favor of redistribution than the median European because they see poverty as an out-group problem. If they identified more closely with those in poverty, they would have a hard time being so against welfare programs. I buy their argument.

But their book also documents striking differences in beliefs and attitudes. Americans, in short, are much more likely to believe that poverty can be escaped with hard work. Can't this also be explained by racial diversity in the U.S.?

What I'm getting at, is that not only is poverty correlated with race, so is economic mobility. For one example, poor Asian immigrants are currently doing much better than poor African Americans, for some reason. We infer that cultural values (like studying hard, strict childrearing, pinching pennies to save for the future) that correlate with race must (overall) have something to do with economic mobility. Therefore, even though we observe about the same average level of economic mobility as Europeans do, we are more confident attributing that mobility to personal choices, rather than luck. If, like in Europe, there were not such a clearly visible proxy variable for those cultural traits, it would appear to be a lot more random who was able to escape from poverty and who wasn't. Europeans don't have the same experiential basis for saying "if group X can consistently pull themselves up by their bootstraps, why can't group Y?"

Alesina and Glaeser show that income mobility is similar between the U.S. and Europe, and yet beliefs and attitudes are consistently different. Despite their honorable attempts to keep normative judgments out of their positive assessment, they betray an unfounded interpretation in which this disparity is evidence of crazy American beliefs, rather than crazy European beliefs. Their evidence proves that beliefs are different, but not which ones are correct.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Up Goer Five style thesis

My behavioral economics theory thesis using only the ten hundred most common words (inspired by XKCD, who else?). This was surprisingly easy to do, I suppose since economics studies what people do and the most common things we talk about are also what people do... Nonetheless, circumlocutions abound. (By the way, after typing in babyspeak for awhile, it is dangerously satisfying to type 'circumlocutions abound'...) I suspect it'd actually be much easier to understand if I could just say "social image".
We humans do things that we don't want to do sometimes. Often this is because everyone agrees that we should act in one way in a given situation, even when we might want to act another way. We agree that doing the wrong thing is bad, so we feel bad inside if we do it. Also, we don't want other people to look down on us for doing a bad thing. If a lot of people can see what we're doing, we especially don't want to do something bad, because we don't want everyone to look down on us. Because of this, one way to make people do the right thing is to make sure that everyone else is carefully watching what they do and looking down on them when they do something bad. 
But sometimes people don't agree on what is the right thing to do. Some people will think that one thing is right, and other people will think that another thing is right. Then what are we supposed to do to avoid having other people look down on us? It isn't clear whether having people look down on someone will still work to make them stick to what they really believe is the right thing when people don't agree on what the right thing is. That is the question I am answering. 
I found out that if we want to be seen as always sticking to what we believe is right, even if everyone else thinks something else is right, we will more often do what we think is right when we are being watched by other people. But, if we want other people to agree that what we are doing is right, we will more often follow the crowd. Sometimes the crowd believes in something that is good for the world, so this is good. But sometimes the crowd believes in something that isn't always good, so we might do bad things in order to avoid being looked down on. 
I also found out that sometimes we might do bad things even if we only want to be seen as always sticking to what we believe in. This can happen if there is a group of people who are very good at always sticking to what they believe in and they all agree on what is right. Then, even if most people don't agree with them, we can be seen as sticking to what we believe if we follow them. If they happen to believe in something that is bad for the world, we might do something bad by following them. But, not very many people will do this. If too many people did this, then everyone would know that they were pretending to believe in the same thing as that group, so people would look down on them again. 
I also found out that if we want to be seen as sticking to what we believe in, we can't agree on a middle ground very well. But if we only want other people to think that we are doing the right thing, even if we have to break our own ideas of what is right in order to do what everyone else thinks is right, then we can agree on a middle ground. If one group would look down on us a lot if we did what another group thinks is right, and that other group would look down on us a lot if we did what the first group thinks is right, then we might want to follow the middle ground instead of either of doing something that anyone thinks is right. 
I also found out that if people have to decide ahead of time what they think is right, then people will always agree on what is right. Sometimes, they might agree on something that is bad for the world, though. One way to make sure this doesn't happen is to make sure that we won't be looked down on too much for doing something else. 
All in all, I found that people don't act the same when they are afraid of being looked down on. But the thing they are looked down on for matters. If we want people to do the right thing and for people to agree on things that are good for the world, we have to figure out which way people want to be seen in the real world.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

cross-cultural economics

In the summer of 2003, I was a pre-freshman research assistant at Caltech when Jean Ensminger gave a lecture to summer students on her research collaboration that was studying how notions of fairness vary around the globe. Her claim was that societies with more market integration have more strongly developed notions of 50-50-split type fairness norms. I was so fascinated by her talk that I immediately decided to double major in economics, having no idea what economics was other than this very behavioral/anthropological project. (It worked out ok though :) Ten years later, the influence of that talk is still obvious; I've studied social norms and fairness all through grad school.

Now, there's a nice journalistic treatment of (part of) this research program. Very good to see!


(Although, it's pretty annoying when journalists inject so much of their own rumination and mold facts onto a more grandiose scaffolding. Nope, I just couldn't let it go without a token amount of whining about science journalism...)

Wednesday, February 20, 2013


Fighting Poverty in the US and Europe: A World of Difference, by Alberto Alesina and Edward Glaeser: Interesting breakdown of the reasons why Europe and the U.S. have found themselves in two different equilibria w.r.t. redistribution policies and attitudes toward the welfare state. I think they wrote off social norms much too quickly (arguing that norms differ because of a top-down process initiated by institutions which are the main cause.) I was very interested and convinced by their argument that race plays a role by allowing the median American to see poverty as an outgroup problem. (But more on that later.)

A Cooperative Species: Human Reciprocity and Its Evolution, by Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis: Good book about the evolutionary aspects of social preferences, which is a different angle than the one I research but one that I find recreationally interesting. I wish I knew more about the historical debate/controversy w.r.t. group-level selection. It seems entirely non-problematic to me. I had to rush through this too fast because someone put a library hold on it, so maybe I missed some of those subtleties.

The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement, by David Brooks: I don't think it's possible to improve on this in the popular-social-science category. My hero-worship of David Brooks continues unabated if not strengthened. (I've also never been so unable to keep from laughing out loud on the BART when listening to text-to-speech on headphones... I got a lot of weird looks from other passengers during his hysterical descriptions of the "Composure Class"...) Anyway, the book weaves together personal narratives of the individuals from two generations with mounds and mounds of research pertaining to every stage of their lives in a way that makes it very hard to stop reading and impossible not to see the relevance of that research. I am too prone to writing off minor cute experimental/empirical results so being forced to read an integrated literature review that ties it all together for me is really nice.

Monday, February 18, 2013

dan savage is a great feminist

Dan Savage is one of my favorite people (and is even better speaking than writing, if you can imagine...), and his most recent letter is a perfect example of why.
Q: What are the effects of perpetuating the myth that gay men should all be tanned and chiseled Adonises? Because that is all one sees. -Not All Adonises
A: ... [T]hose images of tanned and chiseled Adonises can do harm. But if all one sees are images of tanned and chiseled Adonises, NAA, then that’s all one is looking for. Yes, the media—gay and straight—focuses too much on the young and the hot. But if you’re not seeing gay men of all ages, sizes, shapes, and colors, NAA, it’s because you’re choosing not to see them. Open your eyes.
Wow, can you imagine if this was the standard rhetoric of the shrill vocal minority of feminists who love to blow societal factors out of proportion and to fixate on trivial details that 90% of the time have nothing to do with gender in the first place, thereby undermining the credibility of valid complaints that really do deserve attention? I swear to you, as a female in a long diverse string of male-dominated cliques who has never faced a personal reason to give a single thought to gender issues and would never have thought about gender discrimination at all had it not been stuffed down my throat by a string of reactionary feminists, all that fixation is more damaging to your own cause than the original issue...

Sunday, February 17, 2013

economists are cute

I love this footnote (number 6 in the pdf):
"That is to say that they do seem to have wide validity as normative criteria (for me, as well as for Savage); they are probably\footnote{I bet.} roughly accurate in predicting certain aspects of actual choice behavior in many situations and better yet in predicting reflective behavior in those situations."
I translate that as "As a careful scientist, I must point out that this statement is technically an opinion. Yet since I am willing to bet on its truth, you should rationally update your beliefs in the direction of accepting the statement as likely fact." All captured with a two-word footnote, and as if any of that were necessary to elaborate in the first place :)

Thursday, February 7, 2013

when intentions, rather than competence, rule

I'm frequently on the right-wing end of the spectrum in bay area social groups (mostly because I have the gall to believe in gains from trade and respect for individual choice.) Many people seem shocked that I'm almost as hostile to the extreme political atmosphere here as I was to the extreme political atmosphere in Oklahoma (where I was invariably on the far left-wing end of the spectrum...) How could you possibly even compare the hostility of social conservatives to the bumbling head-in-the-clouds misguidedness of many bay area progressives? they say. One leads to unconscionable persecution of minority groups; the other leads to inefficiencies in government. And yes, obviously I'd trade the former for the latter*.

But it's sentences like these...
Grant seekers were told that in the next funding cycle, they would be required — for the first time — to provide quantifiable proof their programs were accomplishing something. The room exploded with outrage. This wasn't fair. ... [A nonprofit CEO] suggested the city's funding process should actually penalize nonprofits able to measure results, so as to put everyone on an even footing. Heads nodded: This was a popular idea.

*on the relevant margin.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

economics of happiness

I can't decide whether I hate or love this article more. Her criticisms are related to valid criticisms of happiness research, but she infuriatingly portrays happiness researchers as guileless soothsayers earnestly extrapolating from their immature results. (She is herself an economist, for the record, so I'm at least tempted to forgive the exaggeration as well-founded professional-insider criticism.)

It's true that the 1-2-3 happiness scale is widely used, but not because anyone honestly believes it captures happiness. It's an easily measured proxy variable for something related to happiness (we're not exactly sure what yet). Studies keep using the same proxy variables across many studies not because they have concluded that it is in fact the best measure or that it measures what they actually want to measure, but because this allows you to merge and compare studies coherently. Many other such proxy variables are used in tandem. Happiness research is currently on a simultaneous quest to understand what, exactly, these things measure, and how to measure more relevant things better, and to learn about happiness itself.

But it's definitely true that statements such as "happiness has not risen since the ’50s in the U.S. or Britain or (over a shorter period) in western Germany" make happiness researchers sound like idiots and mislead layreaders. Measurements of some happiness-related proxy variable that we don't fully understand may have not risen over that time, yet I doubt many people would choose to live in those earlier times, so you just can't make that statement with a straight face, caveat emptor. The oft-mentioned finding that "having children makes you less happy" is equally ridiculous for obvious reasons: that billions of people want children, enjoy having children, and don't regret having children, either at the time or especially after raising them, is overwhelming evidence that these results say more about the metric than the thing we hope it proxies for.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

the beauty of economics

Apparently it takes a rabbi to express the beauty of economics! This is completely wonderful:

Economics writers would do well to become less like dismal scientists and more like this guy. Almost no one emphasizes that economists are just as much seeking to maximize human well-being as anyone else, but the methods that they know will work are frustratingly passive and often counterintuitive.

(The skill of making economics inspirational is also one of the reasons I love David Brooks. Milton Friedman was also often excellent at it.)

[Stolen from MR]

Friday, January 11, 2013


Cat's Cradle, by Kurt Vonnegut - I could not put this book down. And I never say that about fiction. It flies by in a whirlwind of gripping, thought-provoking, never-mundane action. Several of Vonnegut's (excellent) tips for writing fiction have to do with conciseness, and he executes fantastically.

The Honest Truth About Dishonesty, by Dan Ariely - I've read too many books that pertain to this subject lately so I can't give a fresh opinion. Not bad. But it felt too much like a conglomeration of studies and observations wrapped in a book cover, rather than a cohesive argument. I liked Liars and Outliers better - it's thinner on content, but he beats you over the head with a well-formed point.

What the Dog Saw, by Malcolm Gladwell - Finally read some Gladwell. This book was more thought-provoking than anything else I've read in awhile, but in the unintentional way, where the existence of the book itself and the industry and society that led to it being a bestseller was the train of thought, rather than any of his theses. But, if I start ranting about it, I'll never stop. Another day, another post. Punchline (and I know I'm not the first to say so): he's an amazing writer. Don't trust anything he says.


(In the last six months or so, I've been commuting to San Francisco by BART several times a week, which provides time when the only thing I can do without getting carsick is listen to my kindle with text-to-speech. Heavy nonfiction is hard to listen to because the stubbornly non-telepathic device refuses to pause when I stop to ponder a sentence. Fiction that is engrossing enough to listen to is exceedingly rare. Hence, a deluge of light pop-social-sci...)

Thursday, January 10, 2013

placebo effect

Very cool article on research on the placebo effect itself as a treatment.* (Via Kottke)

It makes me wonder two things in particular. (But read the article; most of it is about other things :)

First, what have drug companies already worked out about the procedural aspects of the placebo effect, in the course of designing RCTs in a way to maximize the chance of an outcome favorable to the drug?** This may not have been considered knowledge of direct interest in the past, but now it clearly is, and I bet they have a wealth of data/local knowledge of value. The article inadvertently makes it clear what great interest they have in placebo effects:
That study ... showed that patients with a certain variation of a gene linked to the release of dopamine were more likely to respond to sham acupuncture than patients with a different variation—findings that could change the way pharmaceutical companies conduct drug trials...Companies spend millions of dollars and often decades testing drugs; every drug must outperform placebos if it is to be marketed. "If we can identify people who have a low predisposition for placebo response, drug companies can preselect for them," says Winkler. "This could seriously reduce the size, cost, and duration of clinical trials…bringing cheaper drugs to the market years earlier than before."

Second, have they looked at Hawthorne / experimenter demand effects? Patients' reports of their symptoms and side effects are quite likely biased, and if they've been told that they should expect something, their reports are likely biased to pay more attention / exaggerate those things. What if they are told (at the time of the report) that they should be as objective and comprehensive as possible in their reports, for the sake of science, because they may or may not have been given the real drug and the doctors need accurate assessments for evaluation? Are reports standardized in such a way to maximize objectivity and comprehensiveness? Are multiple reports made over time to control for individual variation (as the article notes that one of these placebo studies was unique in doing)? Are all reports accompanied by objective physiological measures? The article suggests these things are important, but then implies that the cause is a discrepancy between subjective and objective experience, rather than false subjective reports. Both possibilities should be investigated.***
The researchers had hoped to find improved lung function with both the real and sham treatments; what they found instead was that only the real treatment yielded results—the others showed no significant improvement. Yet when Kaptchuk’s team measured patients’ own assessments of improvement, the researchers found no difference reported between the real and sham treatments: the patients’subjective responses directly contradicted their own objective physical measures...This discrepancy between objective and subjective results is precisely where the danger lies. "Asthma can be fatal. If the patient’s lung function is getting worse but a placebo makes them feel better, they might delay treatment until it is too late."

*I've idly wondered about this previously, but this article suggests that maybe honest expectations, created by directly lying to the patient, are not even necessary to trigger a placebo response after all, contrary to my intuition. Pretty cool.

**Not to necessarily accuse drug companies of anything unethical; you could just as easily describe that as "what situational knowledge, derived from years of experience, have drug companies acquired on how to keep doctor interactions / medical procedures as neutral as possible in order to get the cleanest measure of the impact of a drug"...

***Of course, I'm sure they have been to some degree; I'm commenting on a journalistic treatment, and we all know how reliable/thorough those tend to be...

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Happy birthday to Bayes' rule

On the 250th anniversary of the posthumous publication of Bayes' rule, this is appropriate. Good introduction to the frequentist/Bayesian debate.

I've been pretty confused by that debate - what exactly is the controversy, as parodied by e.g. xkcd - so this was nice to read since it put methods I'm familiar with in the context of the debate and doesn't focus on settings in which one side or the other is a straw man. Having read this, I still can't say I see what the big deal is. Obviously if you have a reasonable prior, you should use it, and obviously if you don't, some additional assumptions will be required to draw any kind of useful conclusion, and whatever kinds of assumptions you allow yourself will make a difference... both camps make assumptions about forms of distributions, models, etc, so I think the author is overly sympathetic to the frequentists when he says they claim for themselves the 'high ground of scientific objectivity'.